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Nobuyuki Matsuhisa in the David Rockwell-designed environs of his latest restaurant in Palm Jumeirah's Atlantis hotel.
Paulo Vecina
Nobuyuki Matsuhisa in the David Rockwell-designed environs of his latest restaurant in Palm Jumeirah's Atlantis hotel.

Nobody like Nobu

Sunday interview New York, Milan, Hong Kong and now Dubai - Nobuyuki Matsuhisa's trademark restaurant knows no limits.

An elegant corner of the magnificent Atlantis resort in Dubai is an oasis of calm. There is something familiar about the natural wood and black marble inlaid with bamboo that might remind diners of certain famous Japanese restaurants in other parts of the world. It's partly the distinctive design of the architect David Rockwell.

But it is also the unmistakable aura of chic that whispers rather than proclaims that this is the very latest offering from the culinary wizard Nobuyuki Matsuhisa, better known as Nobu. In the midst of it all, the man himself enjoys a smile of satisfaction as he surveys the scene. Nobu Dubai promises to be every bit as good as the other restaurants. New York, London, Milan, Hong Kong, Bahamas - there are 23 in total - where celebrity A-listers like to hang out and where it's often necessary to book weeks, if not months, in advance. Not bad for someone who started as a humble sushi chef. "Like everything else, there are fashions in restaurants," he says. "Our designer David Rockwell has a signature look that is updated with every new restaurant. So it is familiar, but different." Nobu Dubai opened for business at Sol Kerzner's new Atlantis resort on The Palm Jumeirah on Wednesday and evidence of Nobu's meticulous attention to detail is everywhere.

From the beautifully crafted furniture and subtle lighting inspired by the Japanese countryside, to the clever focus on the sushi preparation area, it is a stylish experience. And yet, Nobu nearly did not come to Dubai. An attempt to lure him six years ago by another hotelier failed because of the lack of fresh produce and professional management expertise in those days. "Last time I came, I thought no way can I come here," says Nobu. "There was no produce, no fresh fish and everything seemed very unprofessional." Sol Kerzner, the South African hotel magnate, who has a home in Knightsbridge, London and dines regularly at Nobu, was more successful. Their first venture together was in the Bahamas and the success of that encouraged Nobu to give Dubai a second look. Kerzner flew him out to show him what he was planning at Atlantis and Nobu was ­impressed.

"It was a big surprise. Everything had changed and I went to see a supplier in the market who had wonderful fresh tuna and every kind of fish. It's not easy to find the right location with support so that you can make more business. Sol Kerzner's group is very professional and I had nothing to worry about here." Nobu's lifelong passion for Japanese ­cuisine began when he was very young watching his mother, Masue, cook for the family. His father, an architect, died when Nobu was seven, and Masue became his mentor in all things, but especially cooking. "My mother cooked for us. She was and still is my mentor even though she died three years ago at the age of 93. She taught me the psychology of how you cook with the heart. I always cook with my heart." He was eight or nine years old when his brother took him to a sushi restaurant, and he still remembers his feelings of excitement. "My generation grew up thinking of sushi as the most expensive food. It was only for special occasions once or twice a year. Now it is much cheaper and you can even get it in supermarkets," he says. "When we walked into this restaurant, I just looked around in wonder and thought 'How interesting'. I loved the smell and the look of everything and immediately thought 'I'm going to be a sushi chef'. Other kids have their dreams of being a movie star or something, but that was mine." When he was 18, he started training at a Tokyo restaurant, getting up at dawn to go to the fish market and doing menial jobs till late at night. At the age of 21, he was finally allowed to start preparing sushi. All the time he dreamed of travelling to other countries and learning about their ways of cooking. In 1972, a Japanese businessman who lived in Peru began to talk to him about opening a restaurant in Lima. With his training over, Nobu jumped at the opportunity. Before he went, he married his sweetheart, Yoko, and together they forged a new life in the Peruvian capital. Nobu was fascinated by a whole new range of spices and tastes and began introducing them into the classic but rather rigid art of sushi preparation. Garlic and chilli-flavoured ­infusions and ceviche, where fish is marinated in lemon or lime juices, became favourite methods as he developed his skills. Quality is everything to Nobu, who insists on the very finest ingredients, but after three years, his backers demanded he compromise for the sake of business. Rather than do that, he moved to Argentina for a short period before returning to Japan.

What followed almost scuppered him before he even got started. It's something that still causes him pain and he finds it hard to express the emotions he felt that drove him to the brink of despair. Towards the end of the Seventies, he and Yoko, ripe for a new adventure, decided to move with their two baby daughters to Anchorage, Alaska, so that Nobu could realise his dream and build his own restaurant in a place where the fish was fresh and bountiful. He put every penny he had into the restaurant and raised a massive loan to build it, often rolling up his sleeves and helping with the manual labour to save money. It was all going well when he decided to take a day off, his first for months, to celebrate Thanksgiving at a friend's house. As they were sitting down to dinner the call came to say that the restaurant was on fire. Nobu rushed straight there and stood in disbelief watching his dreams go up in flames. "I can't say how I felt because I didn't feel anything, neither hot nor cold. There was no insurance. I just stood there and saw it burn down. When I woke up the next morning I was thinking of suicide and it was the same the whole week. I would sit there and try to work out the best way to kill myself. I was so down with no energy. I couldn't eat or drink. If I ate anything I was sick," he says He was saved, he fervently believes, by the loving care of his wife, and he speaks of her with a near reverence. They have been married for 35 years. "Yoko would put her hand on my shoulder and say, 'It's OK, it's OK' and I realised I had her and my daughters. My wife literally rescued me." A friend gave him $500 to pay the air fares back to Japan, where he set up Yoko and the girls with her parents. A week later he flew to Los Angeles alone to look for work. Lonely and knowing only a handful of people, he found a job as a sushi chef working for a salary and tips. He sent what money he could back to his family in Japan after paying his $800 a month rent. "It was a difficult time but I had to do it," he says simply. After two years he got his Green Card, enabling him to live and work in the States, and he moved to a better-paying job. One of the happiest days he can remember was when Yoko and the girls arrived in the country. "I was happy, never thinking of the next step," he says.

Seven years later, the restaurant where he was working was about to be sold and Nobu feared that he might not get along with the new owners. He decided to try to find premises of his own, and a generous friend lent him $70,000 (Dh257,000) to start Matsuhisa. The restaurant was small, with room for just 38 diners, but it was everything Nobu wanted. He soon began to expand his sushi repertoire with herbs, ­flavours and ideas he had picked up in Peru and Argentina. The fashionable Angelenos loved it. One night, the actor Robert De Niro came in with some friends including the director Roland Joffé. Nobu was invited to join them and his restaurant became a regular haunt for the New York-based actor on his trips to the West Coast. A canny investor, De Niro was looking for a building to develop in New York. When he found an old coffee warehouse in what was then a rather seedy Tribeca area, he tried to persuade his new friend to move to New York and open a restaurant. "He came to me several times and wanted me to go to New York City. I went to stay with him for four days there but finally I told him I was sorry but I couldn't do it. I was very happy in Los Angeles because I had my own restaurant and I didn't want to have to worry about a business partner. He was very good about it and understood and the restaurant became the Tribeca Grill." Over the next four years the two men cemented their friendship over many genial suppers and De Niro cleverly never mentioned his idea again, giving his friend time to heal from the still raw experience of Alaska. "One day he called me again. He said, 'Are you ready to come to New York?' He had found another property. I was surprised that he was waiting for me. I trusted him because he was patient and he was watching and waiting for me and he understood me." This time Nobu was ready, and a culinary legend was about to be born. He went into partnership with the formidable De Niro, the restaurateur Drew Nieporent, the producer Meir Teper and a managing partner, Richie Notar, and Nobu New York was opened in 1994. Jaded New Yorkers flocked to the stylish new spot with its revolutionary menu. No expense was spared on the decor, a mix of natural wood and muted earthy colours, and the fish was sublime - Kumamoto ­oysters with Maui onion salsa, toro tartare, ceviche South American-style presented with Nobu's special sauces and of course the famous black cod. The fact that De Niro often ate there might have had more than a little to do with making the restaurant a celebrity favourite. ­But loyal and protective as he is about his friend, the suggestion that the actor was responsible for the restaurant's initial success makes the charming and good-humoured Nobu bridle momentarily. "He doesn't know how to cook or manage a restaurant. He is my business partner and we work together," is his prickly reply. The cloud instantly lifts though and he jokes: "Actually he does promotions for us. He comes to every opening." It is clear that a solid friendship and mutual respect has grown between them over the years, and the actor is one of the few celebrities to have been invited to Nobu's beautiful hideaway in Haconi, Japan, where a hot spring is an integral part of the house. De Niro even gave Nobu a small walk-on part in his movie Casino, playing a high-rolling Japanese gangster. Nobu is quick to defend his friend from accusations of being surly and difficult. "You don't know what it's like for him. People are always trying to get to him. He can't speak to everyone. We even get mail for him at the restaurant because people know he goes there. Women send him personal items. For me he is a lovely person."

With the success of the New York operation, the naturally cautious Nobu was encouraged to open more restaurants. There was no shortage of backers. Spin-off restaurants include Nobu Next Door in New York, where there are no reservations and consequent queues for tables, and Ubon (Nobu spelt backwards) in Beverly Hills and London's Docklands, which are simpler and cheaper versions of the flagship. While Nobu's reputation as the best sushi chef in the world has grown by the year, the restaurants sometimes attract publicity for other reasons. The London location became so fashionable that actors, football stars, musicians, royalty, media folk and members of London's glitterati were at one time given a special telephone number to ring to book a table. Regulars include Gwyneth Paltrow, Rachel Hunter, Liam Gallagher, Sven Göran Eriksson, Mark Wahlberg, Prince Andrew, Nick Faldo and, of course, Boris Becker. Notoriously, the tennis star had a highly publicised liaison with the Russian model ­Angela Ermakowa in the restaurant. Mention Becker and Nobu just laughs and changes the subject.Nobu is not a man who is easily impressed by celebrities and admits that he didn't know who De Niro was when they first met. These days, he is as much of a star as the well-known faces who eat in his restaurants. He plays golf on the celebrity circuit and appeared in a recent ad for the golf clubs manufacturer Callaway with a Big Bertha driver in one hand and a large cooking knife in the other, saying, "Don't slice with this, slice with this." He is in demand to cook at major events, such as the Oscar after-show parties, has cooked for Hillary and Bill Clinton and is developing other ideas to expand the Nobu brand. He has a range of dinnerware and is designing a limited edition piece to celebrate the 250th anniversary of Wedgewood next year. One might wonder how, despite his constant travelling to his restaurants all over the world, Nobu can control the quality of food and service. "Twenty one years ago Matsuhisa opened. It's like a family and 21 years ago it was a baby," he says. "Now it's 21 years old. These people have stayed as a family, working and learning together. After all those years these kids know what father wants," he adds, roaring with laughter. He has brought one of the talented chefs whom he trained in his own special art of Japanese fusion cuisine, Herve Courtout, to Dubai. Courtout worked in the ill-fated Paris Nobu, which lasted just over a year. Mentioning one of his few failures brings a momentary frown to his face, but his innate courtesy stops him from saying anything derogatory about the Parisians, who are notably critical gourmets. "Something was wrong. Maybe the culture is different. The good thing is that Herve is back with the family," he says. Business commitments mean that Nobu only got to spend two months at home in Los ­Angeles last year, but he is clearly devoted to Yoko and their two daughters Yoshiko, 31, and Junko, 23. A naturally generous and gregarious host, he loves to entertain at home for the annual celebration of Japanese new year, when he will cook for about 60 people. "I have a sushi bar at home and wood-burning ovens and a BBQ in the backyard and my staff and family and some friends all come and eat." Alongside him in Dubai last week for the opening was a key figure in his culinary empire, Richie Notar, his head of operations, who learnt the finer points of restaurant management at the Studio 54 disco in New York. Notar knows how to handle the fragile egos of big stars. "Seating, for example, is an art form. I have seen people make the amateur mistake of seating high-profile people next to each other. You don't do that but you put them where they can see each other. People come out for dinner for different reasons. It's all about knowing the maître d', which makes them feel like a big shot. All of a sudden your meal tastes better." Notar thinks VIP phone lines are passé. There won't be one in the Dubai Nobu, he says, because people just pass the number around to their friends and soon it's not exclusive any more. Notar and the rest of the staff exude a quiet confidence in the future success of the new addition. From the experiences they have had around the world, they know that many people will come because they know what to expect. Celebrities feel comfortable because the decor is familiar, although never the same, and the service is attentive and focused without being subservient. The menu will incorporate some old favourites along with new dishes inspired by Arabian influences. As Nobu dashes off to prepare for opening day, he seems as fit and healthy as ever at 59. Nobu Dubai may not be his final ­offering. "I always think I am very lucky to have good health with nothing wrong. I have my restaurants and still my staff is growing. Travelling around them is my life. If I stop work tomorrow maybe I have money and a house, but why should I stop?"

pkennedy@thenational.ae

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